A Reflection on the Epic in Hebrew Scriptures
Jane Dominic Laurel, OP*
From the conquest of idols to the worship of the true God
Among all the contemporaneous writings of their time, the Hebrew Scriptures stand alone in their unique conception of the holy, of the true God. Employing an ingenious yet incredibly human and even charming pedagogy, they teach us the nature of the true holy. Perhaps one of the most accessible images to describe this pedagogy is offered by Rabbi Jack Bemporad: the image of the epic. Incorporating his insights into the context of the Catholic faith, a beautiful image emerges. In the typical epic, the protagonist leaves home, takes up a mission of momentous proportion, and, once the mission has been accomplished, returns home changed by the journey. If Israel as a corporate personality can be seen as the protagonist, and if we can see ourselves in Israel, the epic journey of the Hebrew Scriptures comes to life in a new way.
In Adam, we sin and so we are also justly forced to leave home, the intimate presence of God enjoyed by man in the Garden of Eden. The mission we are sent to accomplish is indeed one of momentous proportion: to uncover the mystery of who God is. The antagonist, cleverly disguised, presents himself under the identities of various pagan idols. We, Israel, the unsuspecting and oftentimes naive protagonist, fall into the trap of idol worship; for, the antagonist draws us in by inciting us to fear or enticing us to desire. For example, when King Ahaz was full of crippling fear, surrounded by enemies on every side, he burnt up his own son as a sacrifice to a false idol (2 Kings 16); and, when Solomon was full of desire for sensuous foreign wives, he built temples to the gods Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11:7). But neither the fear nor the desire need be so dramatic; the subtle has its own appeal. The simpler fear of not having so abundant a harvest or the mere desire for notoriety and a more comfortable way of living leads to idol worship too. Bribing and propitiating, deceiving and being deceived, become a way of life. Before we know it, the antagonist has made us into his slaves, people who live only by fear and desire.
Trapped in the sin of idolatry, how is Israel to escape? Only by uncovering the identity of the antagonist. Thus, there is then the call to arms, the courageous struggle, the suffering in battle. By divine providence present in the battle, the enemy is pinned to the ground. He can finally be unmasked. In half-dread and half-delight, we pull the mask off his face only to discover in an ironically unbearable twist of plot — that he bears our own face. It is our own false self-image that is the antagonist. It is our own false self-image that is in every idol, every sin, we ever worshipped. The false self-image coaxed us into the pressing need to be victorious, right, superior, comfortable, wealthy, and respected.
This is the confrontation at the heart of this epic within the Hebrew Scriptures: wc must face who we are, who we pretend to be, and then what we must do. Like Miriam and Namaan we bear the leprosy of the false self-image; like David we are confronted by Nathan and forced to look at the rationalizations we have made for our sins. Painfully, we must begin to refashion our own self-consciousness.
With the help of the law, the prophets, and our corporate history, we begin to see that we had rearranged our world so that we would be at the center of it and not God. We chose what was important; we chose what suited us (Is 44:9 ff.). We see why the prophets warned us again and again that we ought never to feel good at the expense of another — because every scapegoat, every group of people that became an object of our hatred, every person that we used or manipulated, and every individual whom we considered to be wrong, weak, sinful, or incorrigible actually became the means through which we were idolaters. They were the means by which we made ourselves gods and judges, disparagers and gossipers — superior to the one, superior to the others. Through them we exalted our own false self-image, wove the lies we told to ourselves about ourselves, living in the realm of an oppressive unreality.
Nietzsche says that what distinguishes humans from other animals is the fact that we can lie. We feel that by this means we can manipulate and use others, and yet this very modus operandi immediately makes us vulnerable to others. If the other discovers the lie, what evil will they inflict upon us? Suffering under the lies of others and by our own lies, we become painfully aware of our own vulnerability and fragility. Only once we have come to this realization do we begin to desire to escape the slavery of idolatry, this worship of the false self-image.
Now, the Lord God can come and rescue us out of this slavery. He gives to us as our leader, Moses, “by far the meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). Moses leads us through the desert of purification and transformation, and he asks the Lord on our behalf, “Show me Your face” — ‘Show me Your inner essence.’” The Lord does not answer by describing Himself in metaphysical terms; rather, He answers describing Himself in ethical terms: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). This is the secret of the way to freedom — the path we had been seeking, our way to victory. By undergoing suffering we can at last be moved by the suffering of another. Seeing our own vulnerabilities and defenses, we can at last be moved to be compassionate toward the vulnerabilities and defenses of another. We see our common humanity, and we finally begin to understand the commandment: “Love your neighbor for he is as you are". Made in the image and likeness of the God who tells us He is mercy and compassion, we recognize that mercy and compassion must be the measure and guide for all our actions. We see who the Lord has been for us, full of patience and kindness. We see who we must be for others.
This is freedom from slavery. To love as the Lord God loves. This is the holiness of the true God. There is a sacredness to each human person, for each is made in the image and likeness of God. He shares in the dignity of God, and so he has a responsibility to live according to that dignity, loving the other persons who share that same image not as objects but as subjects. The Lord loves us not as objects but as subjects, relates to us through compassion, kindness, and patience, not through manipulation and use. Thus in the very exercise of the ethical divine attributes, we come close to God Himself. Being compassionate and gracious, patient and merciful to other human persons, we begin to see into the soul of the other — we begin to see and to understand also God Himself. The eyes of our hearts are continually purified, and we are continually transformed until at last we can return home to the Father’s house victorious and utterly changed within.
Still another epic, a greater epic, circumscribes our own epic struggles: the epic of the God who does not fail. He who is the measure of all compassion, all kindness, patience, mercy, and fidelity begins His ‘journey’ in our time by creating not only that time but also us, other subjects made to be like Him. At the most decisive moment in history, this God Himself leaves His heavenly home most radically in the Incarnation — to put into flesh and words, blood and sweat, the compassion that is holiness, the compassion wherein He makes His own our vulnerability and fragility. The supreme epic hero weeps over Jerusalem and allows Himself to be crucified. By His death He shows the vulnerability of love in this act of supreme compassion. And yet, His omnipotence — His love and compassion — is such that violence and hatred, envy and fear, do not have the last word. He rises. He unites us to Himself, walks with us, suffers with us, strengthens and nourishes us, and transforms us inwardly, all the while leading us back home to Our Father’s house.
*From the Congregation of St Cecilia; Asst Professor of theology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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31 July 2015, page 12
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